Thursday, January 17, 2013

Animal Rights and the Sound Commons

Animal Rights Demonstration
     I have argued in favor of a sound commons for all living beings, not just humans. All species, I claim, ought to be able to exist and communicate in their acoustic niches. On what basis might I make such a claim? Is it necessary in this case to claim that animals have rights? And if so, of what kind?
    I have observed three main lines of argument in favor of animal rights. One, which is many centuries old and is generally accepted in the West, is the argument that because animals have feelings and can suffer pain, they must not be treated cruelly. Indeed, in Europe and North America laws against animal cruelty have been enforced since the 17th century. The second line of argument makes a more radical claim, that animals (at least, the higher ones) are like human beings in that they can think, learn, feel joy as well as pain, and act altruistically as well as selfishly. Therefore, the argument runs, like humans, they possess natural rights to be able to live their lives to the fullest extent possible. This more radical argument gained momentum in the past forty years or so, as the environmental movement has embraced “wildness,” and animal rights groups have formed to advocate on their behalf. A third argument claims that animals should be granted rights because the consequences of doing so are beneficial to all living creatures, including human beings.
Animal cooperation
     Of course, many people oppose extending rights to animals. Some of these arguments are familiar: animals are dangerous to human beings; humans need to use animals for food and medical experiments, and thus our need for animals trumps any rights they may have; or domestic animals are property and property cannot possess rights. Some philosophers argue that animals cannot possess natural rights because they lack moral agency. “Rights and liberty are political concepts applicable to human beings because human beings are moral agents [who act in a] sphere of moral jurisdiction where their authority to act is respected and protected so it is they, not intruders, who govern themselves and either succeed or fail in their moral tasks. . . No animal rights theorist proposes that animals be tried for crimes and blamed for moral wrongs.” (Tibor R. Machan, “Do Animals Have Rights?” Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 5, no. 2, April 1991, pp. 163-4). Yet, humans sometimes punish domestic animals when they misbehave, as if they did know right from wrong. And some scientists have questioned the assumption that animals lack moral agency, citing instances of animal altruism and cooperation as evidence that animals can understand the difference between right and wrong, and therefore they are moral beings and have natural rights.
    Another argument against natural rights for animals is made on the grounds that rights carry duties or obligations. A tenant in an apartment has certain legal rights. One of these is the right to reasonable privacy; the landlord must not invade that privacy without due notice and cause. A tenant also has certain duties to the landlord, such as treating the apartment with care and keeping it in good condition. However, the tenant has the right to working heat, plumbing, and so forth, while the landlord has the duty to provide it. Rights and duties are reciprocal in this way. Others have a duty not to interfere unreasonably with my right to liberty, and I have a similar duty not to interfere with theirs. Rights cannot function without reciprocal duties, but the reciprocity also involves an ethical dimension presumed to be absent in non-humans.
    Indeed, even some of Locke’s near-contemporaries thought that the natural rights argument was weak, and that other arguments, based not on unprovable assumptions about inherent rights but, rather, based on favorable (and testable) consequences if rights were granted, made a stronger case. These instrumental arguments included utilitarianism, pragmatism, and so forth. The cultural equity argument, for example, turns not only on the idea of natural (cultural) rights but also instrumentality in those instances when it is argued that cultural diversity represents a kind of bank of various distinct knowledges and practices, all of which contribute (and may in the future contribute) to humankind. The usual example is cultural knowledge of medicinal plants; however, there are many other cultural adaptations. The argument for cultural diversity is similar in this sense to the biodiversity argument against species extinction and is partly derived from it.
    It does not seem to me to be necessary to grant full natural rights to animals in order to make a case for a sound commons for all living beings. One does not need to consider moral agency, or rights and duties. It is sufficient to grant animals a right to life. Although the argument in favor of biodiversity is an instrumentalist argument, while the animal rights argument is based on premise and deduction, both agree that animals must live; and if they must live, then they must do the things that enable them to live: eat, reproduce, and so forth. And one of the things animals must do in order to keep themselves alive is communicate with one another—with potential and actual mates; with members of their own species; and with predators.
     Animals communicate in several ways, but the most frequent are through sight, smell, and sound. Everyone has observed dogs marking territory with their scents, or cats puffing up their fur and making themselves look bigger to a potential enemy. And everyone has heard birds singing and other animals communicating through sound. But noise pollution does not affect humans only, as our example with the helicopters, caribou, and Innu people showed. Increasingly we are learning that noise interferes with animal communication generally, and diminishes animal capacity for survival. Animal communication through sound (zoosemiotics) is an interdisciplinary science that has come into its own in the last helf-century. We now know far more about animal communication than we did in the past. I will be exploring some of this knowledge concerning zoosemiotics and its implications for music, sound, and sustainability in future blog entries.

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